The morality and integrity of Donald Trump “girther” memes

Does the 45th president weigh more than the official White House doctor claims? And are some on the left discrediting themselves in trying to prove this? 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

If Donald Trump were a single pound heavier, he would medically be considered obese. This fact was revealed – but not remarked upon – in Trump’s first medical exam as president, conducted by White House physician Dr Ronny Jackson. Jackson recorded Trump’s height as 6ft 3in and his weight as 239lb, making the president’s BMI 29.9 – overweight, definitely, but not technically obese. If the president were an inch shorter, wore heavier underwear on the day of his physio, or drank a few more sips of Coke at breakfast that morning, the world would be screaming about how the president is obese.

Undeterred by statistics, they’re doing just that anyway.

The “girther movement” posits that Donald Trump’s doctor is lying about his height, weight – or both. A play on the “birther movement” that saw many, including Trump himself, claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, the conspiracy theory has taken over social media, with Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn offering to donate $100,000 to charity if Trump weighs himself on an “accurate scale” in front of the world. Coincidences (just an inch! just a pound!) naturally birth conspiracies, but just how much weight does this theory have?

Jackson’s assertion that Trump has “great genes” arguably incited the social media furore, as many already perceive the president’s diet to be unhealthy, and unflattering photos of Trump often gain prominence on social media. Yet despite Jackson’s seeming-praise of the president (“It’s just the way God made him,” he said of the inconsistencies between Trump’s diet and his health), his report still clearly lays out that Donald Trump is bigly – allowing people to point out that The Donald is very, very nearly obese. It’s also important to remember that Jackson is not Trump-appointed and has been the Physician to the President since 2013 (meaning he was also Barack Obama’s doctor).

The girther conspiracy is tempting because it posits that not only is Trump actually obese – he is also a liar. It feeds our innate cognitive biases about a leader who many find morally grotesque, but this doesn’t automatically make it true. Even if it were revealed in unclassified documents in 50 years’ time that the president did cover up his weight, social media’s current evidence for this claim is at present very flawed.

Pictures speak a thousand words and are often the fastest way to a thousand retweets – but Matthew Hawkins, a senior photography lecturer at the London College of Communication, warns that it is difficult to accurately determine the size of an object – or a president – from a picture.

“In photographer’s jargon wide, short, long are all used in describing something called focal length. Generally measured in millimetres focal length compresses and expands perspective,” Hawkins explains. “Outside of a controlled environment no image can accurately render dimensions from appearances.” This matters because many online are sharing pictures of Trump stood next to other 6ft 3in celebrities in order to prove the president is shorter than he claims. Few people seem worried about taking perspective into account.

More troublingly, doctored images are being used as evidence that the president is obese. At the end of 2017, the fact-checking website Snopes collected all the faked photos of Trump that had spread throughout the year – with many enlarging Trump’s chin and stomach. Some of these images have been used on social media as girther evidence. Even real images – such as an unflattering image of Trump playing tennis in which his underwear is visible – are not contextualised, with no one noting that many are decades old (the tennis photograph was taken 18 years ago). Other images, such as those comparing the president with athletes who also weigh 239lbs, don’t take into account muscle mass nor the long-standing argument that BMI is a flawed measurement for athletic individuals.

This isn’t to say, of course, that the president isn’t overweight. It isn’t even to say that the conspiracy is untrue. But the evidence used on social media to spread the girther theory is worth scrutinising because it is often as base as that used to spread the right-wing conspiracy theories many on the left condemn. On the whole, using simplified memes to spread perceived political “truths” is not a good look for the left or the right.  

The girther movement’s most compelling piece of evidence is that Trump’s very own driver’s license states he is an inch shorter than he claims. But even if girthers arguments have some integrity – do they have any morality? Many online are complaining that girther memes are fat-shaming the president, and drawing attention away from the real issues with his leadership. On top of this, the movement exposes the left to allegations of hypocrisy for condemning appearance-based insults towards everyone and anyone except the president himself.

“Twitter is the sort of place where people who condemn Trump’s wisecracks about physical attributes make wisecracks about his physical attributes,” tweeted former director of the US Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub Jr. On The Donald, Trump's most ardent online support base homed on Reddit, users are quick to point this out. "Sports Illustrated has made Fat Shaming Great Again.They compare a 6'3" 70 year old at 239 lbs.to athletes half his age. Again The Left has painted itself into a corner," reads a post with nearly 3,000 upvotes. 

When the New Statesman spoke with Kim LaCapria, a Snopes editor, after the inauguration of President Trump last year, she was quick to point out that “there has always been a sincerely held yet erroneous belief misinformation is more red than blue in America, and that has never been true.” Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, your brain is not immune to the cognitive biases that make to-good-to-be-true conspiracy theories so tempting. Obviously some conspiracy theories do end up being true (and this one still may be!) but the ends don't justify the memes. A movement that proposes the president is fatter, shorter, and more dishonest than we ever knew is naturally compelling – which is why we should scrutinise it all the more carefully.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh